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Code of Ethics

03 Feb 2017

As part of the course, we studied codes of ethics for computer scientists. In particular, we analyzed the ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. The culmination of this analysis was the writing of a new code of ethics: I partnered with classmate Dan Currie (fellow Keenan Knight) and we wrote a code of ethics specifically for Notre Dame computer science majors.

Here’s a link to the PDF in case the iframe turns out ugly.

Reflection

Our code of ethics is organized into three broad sections: the responsibilities that come with the power of computing, moral suggestions for the handling of information, and considerations about future tech.

Uncle Ben

The first section aims to guide the goals of computer scientists from personal gain towards the prosperity of humanity. That alone isn’t particularly specific to computing, but we felt it was important to include for our Notre Dame audience as a way to incorporate our spiritual mission into what is largely a secular field.

The second section is all about data and information, for what is modern computing if not the processing of data by machines? This section was largely influenced by our readings about the “hacker ethos;” openness in information is a recurring theme. We found it very important, however, to balance this openness with a deep respect for privacy. This balance hinges on a distinction between personal and non-personal information. Ultimately, on the one hand, we need openness in information to combat censorship as a weapon of control, but on the other, must balance with privacy to support and maintain individuality and agency over one’s identity.

The final section considers how computer scientists should face future technologies. More than perhaps ever before, the pace of technological development has made it quite difficult to anticipate what technology will be invented, and moreover, how it will affect humanity. We picked out two technologies to go into a little depth on, but maintain that open-mindedness and cautious excitement should be the dominant tones when considering any future tech. (If I were to re-write this, I’d probably include a subsection on space technologies :) .)


The most significant weakness of our document is its rather terse discussion on openness vs. privacy. This is a huge dilemma for everyone, let alone computer scientists, and one that’s important to me personally. I think we easily could have written an entire code of ethics just dedicated to that issue. Easily. I think, though, that it was a necessary sacrifice in order to achieve the breadth we were going for. It’s tricky, since these sorts of codes aren’t legal documents, they’re supposed to be accessible, and going on some tirade about privacy would not make the document more accessible. While I commented that we could have written a whole separate code to address openness vs. privacy half in jest, I think that would be a legitimate way to address this shortcoming. I’ll be sure to write a post when that document get written, but in the meantime, here’s a good stand-in.

I think codes of ethics play an important role for modern professionals. I’ve found that it’s easy enough to ignore them, but when you actually read them, you realize 1) that you probably already agree with at least a good chunk of what’s written, and 2) how important it is to follow those principles. What’s more is that having such industry-specific codes as the ACM one mentioned earlier helps to get everyone on the same page, and that everyone’s working, in some respect or another, towards a common goal that’s bigger than the individuals working towards it.

Sources


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